Seoul's move to expand zone 'inevitable'

SEOUL - While South Korea's move to expand its air defence zone added to tensions in the region, some said it was an inevitable response to last month's declaration of a similar zone by China.

"South Korea's announcement was not surprising - it was a tit-for-tat action" in response to the earlier Chinese move, Associate Professor Robert Kelly, from Pusan National University's Department of Political Science and Diplomacy, said yesterday. "Tensions will rise and continue for years, now with three nations' overlapping zones."

But researcher Boo Hyung Wook, from the Korea Institute of Defence Analyses, said the latest dispute stems from China's desire to strengthen its claim over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands by extending its air defence zone.

"Since South Korea was so close to Japan, it was unavoidable (for China) to let some of its air zone overlap with Korea's, which has led to all this trouble with Seoul," he said.

"It's really time for the three neighbours to sit together to avoid the worst-case scenario," he added, noting, however, that it was "highly unlikely" the latest row would lead to an actual military clash.

In an implicit criticism of the way China expanded its air defence identification zone (ADIZ), the United States praised South Korea for having consulted its neighbours - including China and Japan - before going ahead.

The US State Department said South Korea's approach "avoids confusion for, or threats to, civilian airlines", while Japan's Jiji Press quoted officials saying yesterday that they expected no worries over the enlarged South Korean ADIZ as it will have no effect on civilian aircraft.

The expanded South Korean zone includes a submerged rock embroiled in territorial disputes with China, and also overlaps with parts of the Japanese air defence zone.

The extension, effective from Sunday, will not apply any restrictions to the operation of commercial flights, the South Korean Defence Ministry said in a statement.

Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok told reporters that South Korea will discuss with neighbouring countries steps to prevent accidental clashes within the South Korean zone.

In contrast, Beijing wants all civilian aircraft to submit flight plans even when they are just passing through the ADIZ, or risk being hit with "defensive emergency measures". The US and Japan have flown military reconnaissance flights in the area without notifying China, in defiance of Beijing's announcement.

Japanese officials indicated yesterday that they received prior explanation from the Seoul government about yesterday's announcement.

Defence officials said they did not expect emergencies to occur as South Korea promised Japan it would not scramble its military jets if Japan informs Seoul beforehand of Japanese military planes traversing the South Korean ADIZ.

There was no immediate reaction from China, although Beijing's response to news last week that South Korea was reviewing its options on the air defence zone was relatively low key.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said last Friday that any move by South Korea must "accord with international law and norms", but added: "China is willing to maintain communications with South Korea on the basis of equality and mutual respect."

South Korea's air defence zone was originally established by the US Air Force in 1951 during the Korean War. It was expanded by about 66,480 sq km or about two thirds the size of the country in waters off its south coast, the Defence Ministry said.


Additional information by Kwan Weng Kin in Tokyo